When I was 11, I started high school. I had attended a primary school with about 30 kids. It was all a little hippie trippy and mostly kids were civil to one another. High school was very, very different. From pretty much my first day, I was told by almost every kid – even those in higher year levels – that I was either one of or a combination of the following: weird, swotty, crazy, stupid, ugly, fugly, teacher’s pet, four eyes. I started to feel excluded from the first time in my life. It continued throughout high school. By the time I left school, I thought different was a bad thing and that being like the crowd was best. I hated myself for being unable to fit in with others. All the insults, violent acts and humiliation took it’s toll. I spent the next 10 or 15 years denying my unique qualities and doing everything I could to be what I thought was ‘normal.’
Fast forward 25 years. I am now a proud Autistic woman. I value my ‘difference’ and the ‘difference’ in others. People who tell me I could ‘pass for normal’ – and yes, some people actually are stupid enough to say that to an Autism self-advocate – do not get off lightly. I like my difference from whatever the arbitrary ‘norm’ might be. And I recognise that a lot of the innovation and breakthroughs in our world – in things like science, medicine, literature, art, mathematics and so forth, are devised or driven by people who probably had a similar experience to me at school.
The thing that makes me sad is that people who are intelligent or quirky often suffer at the hands of bullies and thugs in high school and sometimes even in the workplace as adults. I know what kind of a toll that takes on young people’s self esteem and confidence. I have overcome my negative self-image and realised that school bullies’ view of me were probably somewhat biased and didn’t reflect the reality that I was a beautiful, creative, intelligent, sensitive young woman. However, how many people are out there who have had their spark squashed by abuse? How many people are no longer with us because they simply could’t take the struggle any more? How many people who have something amazing to contribute to the world don;t do it because they’re afraid it will be ridiculed?
When I was a child, there was a rhyme which was popular with primary school teachers: ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.’ Apologies to my teachers, but that is utter crap. We need to send a message that bullying is never OK and that difference is a wonderful and valuable thing. I know things are improving – albeit in a rather incremental manner – but kids at school need to be encouraged and empowered to value their difference and their peers taught that there is no ‘norm’ – people are not weird, but should be valued for their own perspective and understanding.
When I speak to young people on the Autism spectrum who are having a difficult time at school, I often tell them ‘It will be OK. I wasn’t popular in school. Most of the really cool adults weren’t popular at school.’ It would be nice to bypass this step and just have kids on the spectrum built up and empowered when they are at school rather than having to wait until they’ve worked through years of trauma